How to Deliver a Poetry Reading

by | Apr 23, 2012 | Features

Yesterday I sat on a panel about the art of Poetry Readings. Here are my opening remarks:

From Page to Stage

At the end of these opening remarks, which will be in about six minutes, I’m going to give you four easy tips for a better reading. They are more practical than tips like, “Read slowly, speak up, enunciate, look at the audience,” which, come on, are all things everyone has known since eight-years-old and demanding, “Mother. I. Want. That. Puppy.”

And so I have fashioned my remarks for poetry, but I think they apply equally well to all literary performance, including the telling of jokes, for example. I am not necessarily going to follow these tips as I read my remarks now, however, because this is a very dry panel at an overly serious, all-business conference, and I’m not getting paid. Normally, however, it would be very important to me that you are comfortable and ready to enjoy yourself as I tell you important things.

So. Ahem. I am delighted for this opportunity to speak to you about how to take your writing From Page to Stage. It is an honor to appear with SM Shrake and other panelists to be determined.

As I see it, the elements necessary for giving a great—no, not great, rather essential—because that’s the way we ought to think of poetry in its true form (that is, poetry being read aloud)—the elements necessary then for an essential poetry reading are twofold. Here they are: 1, great poetry; 2, great presence. Unfortunately, it takes constant practice and hard work and determination to achieve great poetry and presence.

It’s often said that if a person wants to become a veterinarian, say, or a plumber, then that person needs to study for years and pass some sort of tests and, having proven their skill, they can save cats and toilets—whereas a person need only decide to be a poet and, precisely thereby, she is one. It’s often said that this isn’t right, but what could be righter? A person doesn’t need a license to consider and project that which is most important to being sentient, which is, I’m sorry, what?

That being said, though, I would like to point out that not as many people attend poetry readings every year as go bowling, and also it seems to be always the same people that do attend. Recently I calculated how many readings I go to in a month, on average, and here is that number: ten. Now that I know that, I often find myself sitting in an audience, waiting for a poet to get off the lamentable stage, and consoling myself, “I’ve done it all those other times, I can do it this time too.”

One of my favorite poets, Mairéad Byrne, has a poem called “Applause,” and it goes like this: “Thank god he’s done Thank god he’s done Thank god he’s done” (etc). I can tell you assuredly that Mairéad loves poetry, thinks about it all the time, teaches it to artists, and even runs a poetry reading series in Providence, RI. So how did she get so cynical? I think what happened is she recognized that we aren’t all exactly veterinarians of language, if you know what I mean. We’re not the pipe fitters of performance.

Which, like, okay, whatever. That’s fine. No, no, that’s totally cool. We are all always on the way, and it’s by grace that we are going.

Now I would like to end my reflection with some practical advice for the smoothest ride on the road to giving a great reading. Because reading events face bumps that other events don’t. People like to wonder why independent literature isn’t as successful as indie music, and I think it’s because, at a rock show, folks can go get a beer whenever, whereas a poetry reading confines an audience to their seats by the force of human politeness. But think about it—the success of your performance hinges on the comfort of the audience.

Once you become a veterinarian of poetry you can, like Tom Orange, run yelling through the hallways outside the venue and call it your poem. Like Catherine Wagner, you can make your reading the introductory banter, sung sometimes, to the most sublime conclusion that leaves them wondering: at what point did the poem start? Until you get there, though, here are some basic tips that will help you actually achieve those rules that you already know, like “slow down, speak up, make eye contact with three people”:

One is: don’t speak first. After you’ve been introduced and reached the podium or whatever, just stand and wait until you get something back from the audience, like a sense of comfort, or a titter. It will come sooner than you think, but this silence can continue for a long time, like 30 seconds, or even longer. In fact, the longer you wait, the more amazing your reading will be.

Two is: stop and go back. After you’ve started, STOP reading. Perhaps this should come when you are 1/3 of the way through. Look up at the audience and, in your head, think about the line you just said. Really think for a moment. This will remind the audience not just that there is something to your poetry, but also that you know there is something to your poetry. Lead by example. If you feel comfortable, you can even tell the audience what you were thinking about before going back to the poem. Remember that your poems aren’t as important as communicating your poems.

The third tip is: alternate your volume. At some point during your reading you will sense that the audience is leaving you. Here’s what you do: start talking really loudly for a line or two. You can yell even, but don’t get weird. Changing your volume releases endorphins that make you feel great. Science.

The final tip is: print out your poems in large type. Also, only bring the poems you are going to read onto the stage. Sure, you have a book, and that is awesome. Bring it to the podium with you and hold it up. Say, “This is my book. It costs Ten Dollars.” Then, read from sheets of paper that you have carefully ordered. Three things happen: first, you’re not searching for the next tabby thing on page 37; second, you will never ask ,“Do I have time for one more”; and third, it is much easier to look at the audience because you know you’ll be able to see where you left off.

And nothing is more important than making the audience feel comfortable.